“Short stories are by nature daring little instruments and almost always represent commensurate daring in their makers”, writes Richard Ford in his introduction to the second Granta Book of the American Short Story. Of course, any collection of American fiction, and particularly one dedicated to the short story, that overlooks J D Salinger’s contribution can only be considered, as Holden Caulfield might put it, “phoney” in the extreme.
This oversight aside, Ford’s idea of “daring” provides a useful lens through which to consider Salinger. In his stories about the Glass family, for example, the precocious siblings seek to outdo each other on levels of daring; Seymour realises that it is Zooey, and not Buddy, on the telephone, for example, because there are certain words that only Zooey would have the audacity to use. Salinger’s constant reference to the audacious and precocious nature of his Glass children has the effect of turning them into caricatures, grotesque, overblown figures in whom it is possible to read everything that the author hates and admires. Faith, confidence, war, romance and the creative arts are all up for grabs in stories that are superficially only about family traditions and inter-generational relationships.
Many writers have been more daring than Salinger: Charles Olson, Ezra Pound, Allen Ginsberg. Salinger, though, is one of those significant few who, through sheer gumption, changed the face of literature (and in Salinger’s case, a national literature) for all time.
With The Catcher in the Rye (USA, 1951) Salinger effected a sea-change in the popular understanding of high art. Through this deadpan and angry teens-eye-view of commercial America, Walt Whitman’s high poetry is brought down a peg and the poetry of observation begins an inexorable rise, to be crowned by John Dos Passos’ USA trilogy in the 1960s.
Suddenly, the opinion that Tybalt and Mercutio are the real heroes of Romeo and Juliet, and that it’s probably the system’s fault when messed-up kids get kicked out of school, is compulsory teaching in every classroom in the United States.
What is crucial to Salinger’s daring, though, and what makes his off-beat prose so affecting and so enduring is that his guns-blazing refusal to accept mainstream doctrine as gospel is coupled by his poet’s understanding of the moment.
By “the moment”, I mean just that: precise points in time when everything hangs in the balance, before being swung in one direction or another by some cataclysmic event that provides stories with their crisis and, usually, their conclusion. It is the concept of the momentary that is lacking from Ford’s analysis of the short story, too; what makes stories daring, so often, is their choice of focus not on the catastrophic element but on something else, the passer-by or the eye of the storm.
The novel is there to provide us with an analysis of the unusual; the short story is a glimpse through a window and will always tend more toward the profound if it tends more toward the real-life experience. Be honest, now: you hear about extraordinary events much more than you participate in them, don’t you? The short story at its best tends to share that situation: it is aware of the great and the terrible but it did not cause them, was not directly party to them and will not interrogate them.
Salinger’s A Perfect Day for Bananafish (1948) could be a textbook lesson in this technique. We are given the necessary elements of psychosis that sow the seeds of the climax — Seymour is so totally paranoid that he covers his body with a bathrobe on the beach, to keep strangers from staring at a tattoo that is not actually there. At the end of the story, he lies down quietly on his bed beside his wife Muriel and shoots himself in the head.
You will notice, though, that the story is not entitled “The Insanity and Death of Seymour Glass”. This is not what the story is about; it is about the quiet, enchanting moments that Seymour spends telling the strange story of the bananafish, who gorge themselves until they die, to the infant Sybil. It is not a cheerful story, but it has long been known that children delight most in stories that frighten as much as delight.
The stillness of this innocent exchange on the beach permeates throughout Seymour’s later actions, giving his suicide a Camusian sense of contentment. The exchange with Sybil can be looked at endlessly for literary significance: like the mythological Sybil, she is a cipher between the world of the living and the world that is to come, and so this child’s voice is the voice that calls Seymour on to the next level of his existence.
Furthermore, it is always worth looking at stories-within-stories as the intended focal point; whilst they are brief, short stories are self-conscious, and whilst Salinger is on the one hand telling of Seymour’s death, on the other his is saying, “look here — I am telling a story”.
J D Salinger died of natural causes at the age of 91. That he lived much of his life as a recluse can only be seen as a gift, as his work is so much better able to stand alone without the constant intrusion of the publicity-conscious author. Whilst he may have insisted, as Seymour does in Franny and Zooey, that “I am a writer and therefore not a nice man,” he was certainly a master of his craft and a pioneer of counter-cultural literature.